I keep mentioning about wineries on Vancouver Island as they give you a different profile of wine compared to what we are more familiar with coming from the Okanagan. You are not going to find a big Cabernet Sauvignon produced on Vancouver Island, at least under the current cool climate. Aromatic white wines and Pinot Noir are the stars on Vancouver Island. One of the wineries that have been making consistent quality wines has been Blue Grouse Estate Winery near Duncan in the Cowichan Valley. What makes their wines and the wines from Vancouver Island different? I did mention their cooler climate, but there are other aspects as well. I was fortunate to be invited to a seminar by Blue Grouse Estate Winery featuring the owner Paul Brunner, winemaker Bailey Williamson, and vineyard manager Michael Abbott, who together gave us a better picture of the area and the types of wines they produce on the estate.
Geology of Vancouver Island
Paul started the discussion with a talk about the geology of Vancouver Island. The rocks that makeup Vancouver Island came from the drift of a completely separate piece of land known as the Wrangellia Terrane that collided into the west coast of BC 100 million years ago (or what would become BC in 100 million years). In the collision, there would be an uplift of the landmass and would be followed by 50-100 million years of erosion. There are 5km thick sediments in Georgia Strait from this land erosion. The sediments that stayed on Vancouver Island are known as Nanaimo sediments and do cover the Duncan area where the winery is located. Besides erosion there was also glaciation around 2 million years ago where there was an ice sheet about 2km thick over the Island, which pushed the land down below sea level, allowing seawater and of course sea creatures like clams and oysters to live and die on the land. Eventually, the glacier receded and the land uplifted. So we have Nanaimo sediments and marine shells and other materials deposited on Vancouver Island.
Blue Grouse’s Vineyards
There are 3 named vineyards, Kiltz, Paula, and Brunner, that together form Blue Grouse’s estate vineyard area From the geological activity they get a blue-green clay from undersea activity. There are also gravels in the north end of the vineyards caused by the melting of the glaciers. On the south end, there is the Patolas Creek and a riparian zone surrounding it, which is being left intact to allow for the flourishing of insects, birds, and animals in the area. The soils overall are either gravels (Qualicum soil) which rapidly drain the soils or silty loam (Fairbridge soil) which retains more water in the soil. An extensive soil electro-magnetic conductivity mapping project combined with digging pits throughout the vineyards helped to determine soil distribution. Knowing these things helps the winery team determine which types of grapes to grow on different types of soil.
According to the Koppen Climate Classification for the world, Blue Grouse’s vineyards are in the warm-summer Mediterranean climate zone. This is the same climate zone around McMinnville and parts of the Oregon coast. In addition to the climate zone, there is a modification of the climate around the winery due to the Insular Mountain range on the island, located to the west of the winery, which provides a rain shadow, meaning less rain than other parts of the Island on the west coast. As Pinot Noir grows well at the vineyards, Paul showed us a temperature and rain chart to compare against Burgundy. The Cowichan Valley he noted is about 1 degree cooler than Burgundy, gets less rain in the summer, and much more rain in the winter season. Burgundy’s precipitation is more consistent throughout the year. So similar to Burgundy’s growing season; just a touch cooler and drier.
Michael Abbott has been with Blue Grouse for 3 years as the vineyard manager. He is supervising the expansion of the vineyard planting and moving the vineyards to organic management. Michael spoke about nitrogen being the most, or one of the most, important components in the soil. Nitrogen is limited in the soil and needs to come out of the atmosphere where it is converted into something that plants can absorb. A full technical explanation of why plants need nitrogen and how they can get the nitrogen is described in this linked article.
A farmer, whether it is for grain or grapes, can apply artificial fertilizer from a bag, but the nitrogen comes in in one big rush and then the rest gets washed away and goes into streams and rivers and the ocean, which is not good for the environment. A better way to introduce nitrogen into the soil is slowly so that the plants can have nitrogen through the growing season. Michael does this through growing crimson clover over the winter and tilling the clover into the soil to decompose. Kudos to Blue Grouse for moving to an organic vineyard maintenance plan.
The Wines We Tasted and My Notes
Along with our edification about their vineyards, we also had a chance to sample some of their wines. Those wines labelled “Estate” come from their estate vineyards, while the “Quill” wines come from grapes from other vineyards either from Vancouver Island or from the BC mainland.
Quill Rose 2018 (SOLD OUT AT WINERY) – This rose wine is made from the Gamay Noir grape. Only 400 cases are made per year. This vintage is already sold out on the Blue Grouse website, but there are a few private wine shops and restaurants carrying it. This wine has is a lighter orangy-red coloured wine. Lees and red fruit aromas. Medium body, high acidity making the wine tart but not biting. There is still some smoothness to the wine. Red fruit plus some bramble and strawberry flavours. Mouthwatering acidity on the finish. Tasty.
Estate Ortega 2018 ($23) – Ortega is an aromatic white grape that does quite well in British Columbia. If you have not yet tried Ortega, now is the time to enjoy it with fresh BC seafood. This wine has grapefruit on the nose. Medium body, high acidity, and slightly off-dry. Nice smooth mouthfeel with a touch of acidic prickle. Grapefruit and citrus in general flavours, along with a nice mineral component on the palate. Lingering pepperiness. –
Quill Q White 2018 ($22) – A blend of Pinot Gris, Schönburger, Gewürztraminer, and Siegerrebe grapes. The wine is a light, bright straw colour. Lychee, orange and ripe stone fruit nose. Medium body with medium intensity acidity to give the wine some lively tension. Mineral flavour. Primarily stone fruit flavours with a lesser amount of lychee on the palate. Citrus and grapefruit in particular on the finish. –
Quill Pinot Gris 2018 ($22) – The grapes for this wine come from two sites in the Cowichan Valley. One from the north that is picked earlier, and one in the south that is given more hang time before being harvested. This wine is a medium intensity light lemon colour in the glass. Lighter stone fruit, citrus and honey aromas. Medium-plus body, a strong mineral streak, medium acidity and smooth mouthfeel. Ripe stone fruit flavours with a touch of honey toward the finish. Nice.
Estate Pinot Noir 2016 ($32) – This was a special treat for me and the other seminar attendees as I see it is listed as being Sold Out on the Blue Grouse website. There are many clones of the Pinot Noir grape with each clone offering something different. When the Brunner family purchased the winery and vineyards these grapes were already there and nobody knew which clone or clones were planted. The guess is the Ritter clone. With the vineyard expansion, Dijon clones are being added which I am told will add a feminine, lighter character to their Pinot Noir wines in the future.
The wine is medium intensity translucent garnet. Light intensity nose showing ripe red cherries and candied red fruit. It is off-dry, soft and starts off round but slowly changes to being dry. Light body with flavours of red cherries, candied red fruit, and floral. It finishes with sweet red cherries, sweet spices and some pepperiness. A dry and tart finish. –
Where Can I Buy These Wines?
There are many private wine shops that sell Blue Grouse wines. You can check for the closest stores to you at this link. Of course, if you live in Vancouver Island, you can drop by the winery as well. You can also order their wines via their website.
The Rose wine can be purchased at:
- Otter Co-op Liquor Store in Langley
- Cask + Barrel Liquor Store in Kelowna
- Nesters Liquor Störe in Whistler
- Darby’s Liquor Store in Kitsilano (Vancouver)
- Misson Springs Liquor Store and City Hall Liquor Store in Mission
- The Other Liquor Store in Chilliwack
- Firefly Wines + Ales in Vancouver
- Marquis Liquor Store in Vancouver
Stockists on Vancouver Island that still have a handful of bottles:
- Cascadia Quadra
- Cascadia Eagle creek
- Cascadia Colwood
- Cascadia Langford
- Cascadia Nanoose
- Spinnakers James Bay
- Liquor Plus Cobble Hill
- The Fairmont Empress – Q Lounge, Dining Room, In Room Dining – 2018 Quill Rose – by the glass (down to last 3 cases)
- Clive’s Classic Lounge – 2018 Quill Rose by the glass (down to last case)
- Glow Restaurant & Bar – 2018 Quill Rose by the glass (down to last case)
- The Med Grill – 2018 Quill Rose by the Glass (down to last case)
- Café Fantastico Quadra – 2018 Quill Rose by the Glass (down to last case)
The event was held at TWB in Yaletown. They have a great selection of wine by the glass. Give them a visit.